The Mind in New Testament and Greek Patristic Thought

A great deal of my intellectual life has been devoted to bringing together two sides of that life. One side consists in the things I do as a philosopher of mind: things like considering different theories of the nature of the mind (or soul, or self). The other side of my life has been cultivating a life of prayer and trying to cooperate with God in the work of my sanctification, or being made holy. The connections are not always easy to make. For one thing, when Western philosophers speak about “the mind,” they are often talking primarily or even exclusively about the intellect—about things like beliefs and reasoning. Belief is certainly very important for Christians, and good reasoning can help us sort out what to believe and what God wishes us to do. Some of the Greek and Roman philosophers saw the cultivation of the soul primarily as a process of learning to reason well. But for the Christian, becoming holy—being sanctified—involves more than this. It involves the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, being transformed into the full image and likeness of God in Christ, and being filled with God’s love. You will not find the resources for talking about such things in contemporary philosophy of mind. Fortunately, there have been Christian theologians and philosophers who have developed theories of their own. These draw upon some resources from classical philosophy (particularly Plato), but are grounded in Scripture and the experience of Christians who led reflective and holy lives. In this article, I shall explain one such theory, which was developed by Greek-speaking Church Fathers and is widely held among Eastern Orthodox Christians, but which I think recommends itself to Christians of all denominations (I am not myself Eastern Orthodox, but find in their writings some of the most edifying discussions I have found of the soul and the spiritual life).

Let us begin with the Bible. What does the New Testament say about the mind? The question is somewhat complicated by the fact that the koine Greek of the New Testament (NT) employs seven different words that can mean “mind” (nous, dianoia, synesis, noema, ennoia, phronema, phronesis), and how they are best translated depends upon context. In one place a word might best be translated as “mind,” in another as “understanding,” “thinking,” or “intellect.” In short, the NT writers do not seem to be using the different words as philosophers might, as technical terms with distinct meanings, but use them almost interchangeably, the way we might in ordinary language sometimes say “mind” and then in the next breath speak of the same thing but call it “understanding” or “intellect.” Similarly, the Greek word for “heart” (kardia) sometimes seems to be indistinguishable in meaning from the words for “mind.” While we may think of “the heart” solely as the seat of emotion, in koine Greek the kardia is also understood to be an organ of thinking. If you are looking to the Bible for something like a philosophical theory of the mind, with careful philosophical distinctions between different faculties of the soul, you are likely to be disappointed. The New Testament writers were not engaged in philosophy of mind or theoretical psychology.

We do, however, find a different sort of emphasis in discussions of mind in the New Testament, particularly in Paul, one that is absent from what you would find in textbooks in philosophy or psychology. Paul often speaks of the mind (for which his most frequent terms are nous and dianoia) in terms of its relation to two other things: the spirit (pneuma) and the flesh (sarx). John B. Taylor writes:

As used by Paul, the word nous is contrasted both with pneuma, spirit, and with sarx, flesh. Perhaps it is for this reason that credence is still given to the idea that man is a trichotomy consisting of mind, soul (or spirit) and flesh (or body). That, however, is not Paul’s teaching, for to Paul man is a unity: he is soma, he is body. Sometimes he is psyche, an individual, a personality. And yet there are two sides to his nature—there is the nous side and there is the sarx side. These two aspects of man represent the avenues by which man’s personality is invaded: the nous can be invaded by the pneuma, the Spirit of God; the power of evil enters via the sarx, the flesh. The result is that if your nous is invaded by the Spirit of God, your spirit-filled mind keeps your flesh under control and you are describable as a pneumatikos, a spiritual person. On the other hand, if the power of evil enters through your flesh, your nous itself becomes depraved and corrupted and you are describable as a sarkikos or sarkinos, fleshly person. So when in Romans 1:28 God gave men over to a reprobate nous, it was because they had allowed evil to invade their fleshly lives.[1]

The fundamental point here seems to be that the human mind can be in two very different conditions. It is capable of dwelling on God and spiritual things with the help of the Holy Spirit; and when it is in this condition, the whole person is set in order and we can live in a Godly way. Presumably, this was the state of Adam before the Fall and that of those who are sanctified in the Resurrection. But this capacity was lost in the Fall: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.”[2] The minds of fallen human beings are thoroughly enmeshed with the flesh. We may know of God and His commandments through the Law and the Prophets; but without the Spirit, our minds themselves are incapable of thinking in spiritual, but only in fleshly, ways. Christians receive the Holy Spirit when they are baptized, restoring the mind’s capacity to set itself upon spiritual things. But we Christians, and the Christians Paul was writing to, are still in a kind of battleground in which our minds are pulled one way by the Spirit and in an opposite direction by the flesh. And thus Paul exhorts his readers, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[3]

It is notable how different Paul’s emphasis is from that of most philosophical discussions of the mind. For philosophers, what is most distinctive of the mind is what we might call intellect, the ability to reason. Paul was certainly not averse to reasoning—he engaged in debates with both Jewish scholars and Greco-Roman philosophers in his efforts to convert them. Classical philosophers also spoke of “conversion”—conversion to a philosophical way of life—but for them it was primarily an intellectual conversion. For Paul, reasoning might be of some use in clearing the ground for the Gospel, and perhaps even in persuading people of its reasonableness, but a person cannot be saved simply through good reasoning. Rather, he must accept Christ and receive the Holy Spirit. Likewise, good reasoning may assist a believer in coming to an accurate understanding of God and salvation (and hence Paul argues over questions of Christian doctrine), but true understanding of spiritual matters comes only through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Reason may be among the tools we use to “test the spirits,”[4] but it does not itself supply spiritual insight. This comes only through the Spirit operating within us—that is, within our minds.

These ideas were further developed by some of the Church Fathers, some of whom were also Christian philosophers interested in formulating a more exact theoretical understanding of the soul and its sanctification. In this, they were informed not only by Scripture, but also by several centuries of Christian spiritual practice (particularly developed in the monastic movement that began in the fourth century) and by theories of the soul first developed by pagan philosophers, particularly the Platonists and Neoplatonists. In Plato’s Republic, there is a brief passage (called “the Divided Line”) wherein Plato distinguishes different types of thinking, and perhaps different faculties of the soul. The most familiar distinction he makes is between rational thinking and thinking based in sensory images. But he also makes a further distinction between two types of rational thinking. One of these, dianoia, is what we might call reasoning—the sort of thing we do in working out the consequences of an argument, where we go from assumptions to conclusions. The other, noesis, involves direct apprehension of intelligible principles that Plato calls “the Forms,” most importantly the Form of the Good. Noesis is a higher form of thinking than dianoia, and one in which we are supposed to be directly in contact with higher principles. All of that reasoning and argumentation in the dialogs turns out to be a kind of preparation of the soul to receive higher principles.

Now, while Plato does sometimes speak of the Forms as “divine,” this is not a Christian theory in its own right. There is no talk of salvation or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is more like a process of polishing the lens of the soul so that its natural capacity to behold the Forms is unleashed. But there is something here that is potentially useful for Christians, particularly in distinguishing the spiritual-mindedness that Paul emphasizes from intellectual reasoning. The reasoning, calculating intellect can test and work out conclusions of what it already believes, but these beliefs can equally well be based in the Spirit or the flesh. A clever person can be very good at figuring out how to satisfy the desires of the flesh, and even to justify them. The calculating intellect—dianoia—is morally neutral. Understanding of God and spiritual truths requires something quite different: a kind of thinking that we are capable of only under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. This is slightly different from Plato’s conception of apprehending the Forms directly, but it was natural for Christian thinkers to appropriate Plato’s terminology and call this mode of thinking noesis, and to make the corresponding Greek noun nous into a kind of technical term for the part or faculty of the soul whose function is to apprehend God and spiritual truths.

As a result, we see a change in the uses of the words for “mind”—nous and dianoia—in the Greek-speaking Fathers. As Father John Romanides writes,

We should point out that there is a difference in terminology between St. Paul and the Fathers. What St. Paul calls the nous is the same as what the Fathers call dianoia . . . When the Fathers use the word nous, the Apostle Paul uses the word “spirit” . . . And by the word nous, he means the intellect or reason.

In his phrase, “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,” St. Paul speaks about two spirits: the Spirit of God and the human spirit. By some strange turn of events, what St. Paul meant by the human spirit later reappeared during the time of St. Makarios the Egyptian with the name nous, and only the words logos and dianoia continued to refer to man’s rational ability. This is how the nous came to be identified with spirit, that is, with the heart, since according to St. Paul, the heart is the place of man’s spirit.[5]

This basic understanding of the soul is a fairly common element of Eastern Orthodox thought (Though even there the terminology is often maddeningly variable. What one writer calls nous, another calls “heart” or “(human) spirit,” and the word nous is itself translated into English in various ways). And it forms the basis of a Christian theory of the soul that helps make sense of the Fall and of sanctification.

On this view, there is a part of the soul, the nous, whose function is the apprehension of God and spiritual truths. It is, in fact, specifically in this part of the soul that the Holy Spirit was intended to dwell. When the Spirit inhabits the nous, the soul is illuminated and capable of communion with God and understanding spiritual principles. When we are in this state, the nous can also set our whole nature in order and overcome the passions of the flesh. When Adam and Eve insisted on their own will rather than God’s, effectively rejecting God’s presence and guidance, the Holy Spirit withdrew from them, leaving the nous darkened and their souls out of order. Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the nous is essentially inactive, leaving fallen humanity with only calculating reason (dianoia) and the passions of the flesh to guide it. A fallen human being is essentially a combination of animal passions and a computer mind, and is unaware that there is another part of our nature— indeed, the most important part—that is lying darkened and dormant. As Hierotheos Vlachos points out, this is essentially the Enlightenment view of human nature, though from a Christian perspective it is really the result of an “endarkenment” of the soul. Secular philosophy is necessarily blind to the part of our nature that can receive the Holy Spirit and understand God and spiritual things because it is inactive in our fallen condition and hence unobservable.

What happens when we are saved? Of course, our sins are forgiven. But equally importantly, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us, taking up residence in our nous and—to the extent that we turn ourselves towards God—enlightening the soul and taking control of the calculating intellect and the passions, thereby setting the soul into a state of holy order. The Holy Spirit guides us, sometimes in thoughts that can be put into words, and sometimes in insights too deep for words. It also transforms our attitudes, replacing the passions with Godly love. Because God (the Holy Spirit) is truly within us, our own nature is transformed into a Godly nature, restoring the image and likeness that was lost in the Fall and changing us so that we take on Christ’s nature. And because God is love, we are transformed into loving beings as well. Like branches grafted onto a vine,[6] we take on something of the nature of the True Vine.

This is necessarily a very brief introduction to what I have come to consider a very edifying Christian psychology. To the reader who wishes to explore it more deeply, I would commend Vlachos’ Orthodox Psychotherapy and Theophan the Recluse’s The Path to Salvation and The Spiritual Life.



1 John B. Taylor, “The Mind in NT Christianity,” TSF Bulletin 57 (Summer 1979): 1-3.

2 Romans 1:28.

3 Romans 12:2.

4 1 John 4:1

5 John Romainides, Patristic Theology, (Uncut Mountain Press, 2008), chapter one.

6 John 15:5.


Steven Horst is a Professor of Philosophy at Wesleyan Universi­ty. Horst came to Wesleyan in 1990 with a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Boston University. He has been a visiting scholar at Princeton (Philosophy), Stanford (Center for the Study of Language and Information) and Boston University (Center for Adaptive Systems), and has received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Templeton Foundation.

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